Sunday, August 2, 2015

Amor Fati

Bluemont elevation profile
George Sheehan may be considered today's running philosopher, but maybe Nietzsche was on to something too. Let me explain.

Seven-some miles away from the car, Rohan and I wound along the shoulder-less curves of Snickersville Road on the return trip from Bluemont. Beyond the neat rows of trees shielding us from the sun, bucolic fields reached for the mountains, cows lazed and occasionally announced our presence, and horses shied away from us while we fantasized that they might canter along with our strides. 

But despite this pastoral and picturesque Virginia countryside, the hills came like unrelenting sets of waves. Conversation ceased as we powered up each steep face and tried to ease down the backside to save our quads. 

Right about this time, I started to mentally thumb through my catalog of mantras: “smooth and easy,” “powerful and efficient.” And I thought about that singular piece of advice, which all marathoners (or even racers at any distance) receive from the magazines, experts, and those who have “been there”: run the mile you’re in.

And while this running commandment that has been passed down through the ages sustained me for a few minutes, my mind started to dive deeper into thought. That’s when Nietzsche’sphrase “amor fati” bubbled up. 

I first came across the phrase a month ago reading Kate Atkinson’s book “Life After Life, and have been infatuated with it ever since. Like Ursula Todd, the book’s main character, I initially pronounced it “a more fatty.” Which, on this particular run, got me thinking about “amor,” and could it be “love of fat”? I mean, who doesn’t love an avocado these days or a certain anthem from 1978?

In actuality, it means “love of one’s fate,” or as Ursula comes to understand, “a simple acceptance of what comes to us, regarding it as neither bad nor good, (stay with me here). It’s focusing on being, rather than on becoming. We worry away the present, seldom appreciating where we are, in order to get to what we assume will be a better place.

Recently on runs, for example, I find my thoughts at mile two drifting to where I will be at mile ten. Rather than becoming weighed down by the enormity of covering those eight or however long miles, I try to refocus and say, “Yes, we will get there, but we must be here first. So let’s be present and give this part right now – painful or powerful – its due.

As Rohan and I tackled another set, I chose to accept, instead of dwell in, this dark place. I tried to simply (or perhaps not so simply) accept what came. Accept what the run gave or took from me. A “this too shall pass” mindset, whether I was in a good place or bad. Knowing that pushing through the dark places meant getting to a lighter place on the other side.

Frank Shorter expressed a similar sentiment when he said that, “Experience has taught me how important it is to just keep going, focusing on running fast and relaxed. Eventually it passes and the flow returns.

And sure enough, during this philosophy meets running session, I came back to reality – to the task at hand – and noticed that Rohan and I had arrived at the final climb of our toilWe stared down the hill we had both noted on our way out some fifteen-and-a-half miles ago. It seemed to reach beyond the tops of the trees and disappear around a bend where we knew it would still continue to rise. We each took a pull on our water bottles, exchanged a fist bump, and climbed. I felt the effort strain my hamstrings and a grimace break across my face. Our breathing came in ragged gasps. And as the road began to curve revealing the final climb, I thought, “Amor fati.” The pain didn’t dissipate, but the mental stress of willing it to fell away like the road behind us. We surged up and over the lip and rode down the backside where the road unspooled with our strides. Our footfalls fell in synch and we appeared to move as one fluid organism charging for home. And there it was: acceptance.

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